Officer 1792

The artist Edward Dayes was commissioned by the Duke of York to produce paintings of officers and men of the different regiments around 1791-3. This one was discovered in a bookshop in the late 1930s and was reproduced as a colour plate in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research vol XVII no.65, Spring 1938. Major I H Mackay Scobie wrote an article to go with it but dated the picture 1780. All other, later, references to the painting date it as c1790. Prints produced by Kirk and Hodges from Dayes's paintings are dated 1792-3, but this is an original painting. He could be forgiven for dating it ten years earlier because, as he says, 'it is marked on the back, in contemporary handwriting, "Officer of the 42nd Regiment of Foot, 1780, by Dayes. From the Duke of York's collection."' But how would he know that the writing was contemporary?

What gives us a clue about the date is that the 42nd changed from black swordbelts to white in 1789. All pictures prior to that date show both officers and men with a black leather belt on their right shoulder with brass or gilt buckle tip and slide showing on the front. This officer has a white belt with an oval beltplate on the front. It is difficult to say whether it is silver or gilt but as the 42nd were a gold lace regiment it is fair to assume that it was gilt. The sword belt is over the the right shoulder, on top of the coat but disappears beneath the bottom of the coat. Major Scobie fails to mention the change from the black to white belt, although it would have been startling to discover that the regiment had actually changed from black to white as early as 1780. There is no question that the regiment did make this change between 1789 and 1791. An inspection return dated 8 June 1791 writes: 'Appearance improved by having now white accoutrements instead of black ones.' Other Highland regiments also had black swordbelts but did not change to white until 1798.

The long-waisted appearance of the officer, and that of the accompanying picture of a private of the 42nd, make the figures look top-heavy. Dayes was more familiar with painting elegant soldiers in white breeches and must have had trouble with the oddity of a kilt. But he has provided valuable information on the unusual aspects of the dress. The sporan molach (hairy purse) is very carefully observed. It has a gilt clasp engraved with a thistle and trophies and three studs on the top edge. It is made of spotted seal skin with an edging of some dark material, and decorated with 10 gold tassels. Next to it is the dirk which is also carefully rendered, with the smaller implements stuck into the front of the sheath. The garters holding up his hose show the beginnings of the more formal ribbons of modern times. The coat itself has blue lapels that end near the bottom where there is a white turn-back. Gold lace button loops can be seen on the false pockets at the side. These were placed on the coat-tails of later uniforms as can be viewed at Back of Officer's Jacket 1815. He has two gold epaulettes which may indicate senior officer status.

The bonnet has the red white and green diced band and the now voluminous black ostrich feathers sprout from a large black silk cockade. This seems to have a gilt badge in the middle. The general look of this head-dress gives a good idea of how the Highland bonnet of modern times had its origin. There is no hackle. The Black Watch red hackle was added towards the end of the 18th century. The belted plaid, or its imitation, shows the Black Watch sett. The mantle is attached to the back of the shoulder with green ribbon. There are green ribbon rosettes on the kilt and the corner of the plaid. Major Scobie points out, 'the apron of the kilt seems to be brought to the front the reverse way, and not to the right as is now always the case.' The hem of the kilt is quite low; in the early 19th century it appears more above the knees.

Regimental Details | Uniforms

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by Stephen Luscombe